Arizona Pioneer in Wrecking Public Education through Charter Schools

Recent news articles claim that Arizona is a “leader in innovation” when it comes to private businesses like charter schools. Arizona is said to be amazing because it is ensuring “freedom” for parents to “choose” from an exciting array of charter schools to send their kids to, and this is all thanks to a legal environment that strongly supports deregulated charter schools. This is another way of saying that there is little accountability and oversight of charter schools in Arizona and that charter schools can generally operate with impunity. Charter school promoters call this “a friendly regulatory environment.”

It is worth observing that Arizona’s charter schools, much like charter schools elsewhere, are rife with fraud and corruption. In fact, some of the most egregious forms of corruption come from Arizona. Further, in the recent period privately-operated charter schools in Arizona have seized about $100 million in PPP funds from the CARES Act. These funds are not available to public schools because public schools are not private businesses.

In 2017, the ACLU slammed hundreds of charter schools in Arizona for practicing discriminatory enrollment practices even though charter schools are ostensibly “public” and supposedly “open to all students.”And like other privately-operated charter schools across the country, Arizona’s charter schools spend more on administration than teaching and learning.

In 2019, an Arizona news station reported that, “More than 100 charter schools in Arizona are in danger of closing, due to financial mismanagement, declining enrollment, and mounting debt.”

In 2020, charter school researcher Jeff Bryant had this to say about the high failure and closure rate of privately-operated charter schools:

Parents who live in Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and Michigan should be especially wary. At the ten-year mark, charter school failure rates in Wisconsin were at 55 percent; in Arizona, 48 percent; in Florida, 42 percent; and in Michigan, 41 percent. Three of those states—Wisconsin, Arizona, and Florida—are joined by Ohio at the top of charter closures at the five-year mark.

The severe harm caused to public schools and the public interest by charter schools and vouchers in Arizona is also laid out in Curtis J. Cardine’s 2018 book titled Carpetbagging America’s Public Schools: The Radical Reconstruction of Public Education. What makes this book about the horrors of “free market” education arrangements interesting is that Cardine used to work in and support charter schools but quickly realized how unethical and corrupt such schools are.

Sadly, the problems with Arizona’s charter schools could fill several pages. So much for replacing “failing” public schools with the silver bullet of deregulated and segregated charter schools. Society is now stuck with two failing education arrangements—both engendered by neoliberals and privatizers.

Promoters of privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools have long duped many people by hiding their pay-the-rich schemes behind words like “innovation,” “freedom,” “accountability,” and “choice.” Such language is meant to appeal to those who investigate nothing, casually reject research, and blindly accept what someone else tells them. Such individuals question nothing and “just go along” with everything. It is textbook anticonsciousness which blocks people from recognizing that “innovation,” “choice,” “parental power,” and “accountability” are worn-out code words for more neoliberal wrecking. Treating parents and students as consumers and school shoppers is retrogressive, not progressive.

Charter school promoters have also relentlessly promoted the antisocial narrative that the situation in education is “urgent” and “we must do something” when it comes to “failing” public schools. We simply “must do something!” scream charter school promoters and privatizers. It does not matter what we do, even if it means going from bad to worse, we just “must do something.” “The faster the better.” We shouldn’t even “waste time thinking things through.” “We need something different now!” A great sense of false desperation is cultivated in order to act in the most pragmatic and destructive fashion. All of this violent disinformation is designed to cover up the nefarious role of neoliberals in setting public schools up for failure and then privatizing them by creating charter schools which fail and close every day. None of this benefits the public.

School privatization is not “innovation” or “freedom;” it is a straightforward mechanism for owners of capital to seize public funds through restructured state arrangements. It is state-organized corruption to pay the rich under the banner of high ideals. It is not something else, nor can it be prettified. Charter schools are segregated, governed by unelected individuals, have high teacher turnover rates, over-pay administrators, close frequently, lack transparency, engage in embezzlement, and have nothing to do with improving schools or “serving kids” who have “fallen through the cracks.”

Privatization, whether in the sphere of healthcare, education, transportation, infrastructure, or prisons, leads to more waste, inefficiency, and corruption. It also increases costs and lowers the quality of services while enriching a handful of people. Privatization has nothing to do with improving services and programs needed by the public.

Privatization distorts the economy, increases inequality, and further marginalizes the polity. It puts more power in the hands of narrow private interests. It is a step in the wrong direction and means more suffering and humiliation for the public.

“Authorized Carpetbagging,” to use an apt phrase from Cardine’s book, makes things worse, not better. A more precise rendering of this phrase is state-authorized carpetbagging. Public schools do not need to be looted, demonized, or privatized, they need to be fully-funded and placed under public control worthy of the name. They must be free of the influence of narrow private interests.

About 213,000 Arizona students are enrolled in roughly 550 privately-operated charter schools.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.